Edema vs. lymphedema:
Edema is an excessive amount of fluid in the tissues of a given area. This may occur after injury, with inflammation, or after long periods of standing or sitting. In the case of edema, the lymphatic system is temporarily overloaded but not damaged. When the lymphatic system is damaged, most often from injury, surgery or other trauma, the ability of the lymphatic system to transport excess tissue fluid in an area has been compromised. Protein-rich fluid accumulates in the tissue spaces and causes the limb to enlarge. The excess swelling decreases the oxygenation in the tissues, diminishing normal cell function. Another problem is that the stagnant tissue provides an excellent environment for bacterial growth so risk of infection increases. Proteins are the “building blocks” of tissues. With the protein-rich fluid pooling in the tissue, the tissue may become fibrotic, or hard and thickened, impacting the lymph, vascular and musculoskeletal system in the immediate area.
What does Lymphedema feel like?
-the affected limb may look larger than the other (but there may be not unusual sensations)
-a feeling of tightness or heaviness in the limb. Often in the elbow (arm lymphedema) or behind the knee (leg lymphedema)
-skin on the affected limb may appear thicker or red
-the affected limb may be warmer to the touch than the other limb
-aching buttocks (leg lymphedema) or shoulder (arm lymphedema)
-pins and needles sensation in the affected limb
-pain in the joints, similar to arthritis
-tenderness in the groin of the affected leg
-leaking of lymph fluid from the skin
Primary Lymphedema, also known as congenital, praecox, or tarda lymphedema, most often occurs in females. It can appear at birth, at puberty or later in life. In primary Lymphedema the lymph vessels are inadequate to transport the lymph fluid. This can be because there are too few vessels, the valves do not work properly, or the vessels are too large. Primary lymphedema is most common in females, and usually only one limb is affected.
Secondary lymphedema is a result of damage to the lymphatic system such as surgery, radiation or chemotherapy, trauma, chronic venous insufficiency, repeated infections in a limb, parasites (most notable is filarias in tropical countries), or postoperative infection. At this time there is no clear understanding of all the causes of lymphedema. It is important to understand that once the lymphatic system has been damaged lymphedema may occur at any time and there is no cure. It is equally important to recognize that with early intervention and treatment lymphedema symptoms can be managed.